If you think airport projects move slowly here in the US, just take a look at the UK. This week the semi-go-ahead was finally given to a new third runway at Heathrow. This has been in discussion for decades, and it’s long overdue. But we aren’t at the end of the line yet. I’m still not convinced this will happen.
The UK has dug its heels in for years when it comes to adding airport capacity. That, among other things, has led to a shift away from Heathrow as being nearly as important as it used to be in the global air travel system. London has a lot of airports, but its two most important, Heathrow and Gatwick, are bursting at the seams. Heathrow’s two runways have been at capacity for years, and its status as a global hub has waned. Gatwick, which is known as a leisure travel mecca, has had a tremendous resurgence with the likes of easyJet and Norwegian launching aircraft off its single runway all day long, leaving it near capacity.
This most recent decision to add a runway by the government was technically between Gatwick and Heathrow, but in the past there has been discussion about an additional runway at Stansted as well. The obvious answer is to add runways wherever they’re needed, and that includes Heathrow and Gatwick along with Stansted. In fact, Ryanair CEO Michael Leary said effectively that in his response to this decision that Heathrow had won. But any growth in runways in London is nearly impossible to achieve. So settling for only one runway at Heathrow? That’s still a giant leap forward in a country that has done nothing but try to harm air travel.
Of course, this decision isn’t really a final decision. That would be way too simple. The government will take this to the public for “consultations” before making a final decision, though it says that won’t stop it from happening… sure. Then more than a year from now (next winter, sometime) they’ll take this to Parliament to vote. Then and only then can they move forward, assuming the hundreds of lawsuits that will inevitably be filed haven’t stopped it. We’re a decade away from seeing the runway, at best.
Is it likely to actually occur? Well, I’ve given up trying to predict. People in West London are against it, because, well, they don’t want more noise. But people elsewhere in the country are certainly for it, because it will likely enable more connections into the capital from those other places. So, if the government keeps its word and pushes forward, it sounds like Parliament shouldn’t be an issue. Maybe by 2018 we’ll have an idea if this will actually happen. Or maybe not.
In the meantime, we’ll see all kinds of anger and fighting and jockeying for position on how this should (or shouldn’t) happen. British Airways, the largest user of Heathrow, has already made it clear that it wants a new runway… if it doesn’t have to pay for it. This stance is actually pretty shrewd. The reality is that for British Airways, it has more to lose by seeing an additional runway. At this point, it controls a tremendous amount of slots at the airport, and it doesn’t have to worry about new entrant competition there. With a new runway, that changes. EasyJet has already indicated that it will fly to Heathrow if the new runway opens.
So British Airways can straddle that line. It can say that it wants a new runway; it’s great for the nation. But by saying that the airlines and consequently travelers shouldn’t have to pay for it, it pushes it right back on the government or the private operator to figure out how else to pay the billions and billions of dollars involved. And we are talking about billions. Look at the map above and you can see that not only do wide swaths of people have to be relocated, but they have to bury the M25 motorway in a tunnel. (Either that or they are going to build the runway on a ramp over the M25. Seriously.) I can’t imagine this not hitting the rate base at all, so BA can raise a fuss without looking like the bad guy. It’ll be doing it in the name of low costs and fares. Good thinking.
In the end, London needs more airport capacity. And if they’re only going to build one runway, I do think Heathrow is the obvious choice. But how do you pay for it? It’s already an absurdly expensive airport from which to operate. Will there need to be a two-tiered system that allows for some sort of low-cost competition? It’s almost like forcing low-cost housing when you build a condo project. You can be sure British Airways will not be happy if something like that happens. All I really know is that I believe nothing until I actually see the runway being built. Sounds like a good Dorkfest… for the blog’s gold anniversary in 2056.